FOCUS ON ISSUES Alarm sounds over conversion, but passage of measure probable

NEW YORK, March 4 (JTA) — Israel runs a big risk if it passes legislation reinforcing exclusive Orthodox control over conversions in Israel. That was the alarm sounded by American Jewish leaders during a flurry of meetings with Israeli officials this month. Nonetheless, the Americans believe that unless something dramatic develops, the legislation is likely to pass within three to six months. The question is how its passage will affect U.S. Reform and Conservative Jews and their relationship to an Israel that does not recognize their Judaism as legally legitimate. Over kitchen tables and in living rooms, many are grappling with this question. They then are venting their frustration and protest to their local leadership in federations, synagogues and community relations councils. These leaders” immediate concern is how that frustration may threaten the central fund-raising campaign for human services in Israel. Some donors already have warned that they will bypass the campaign because they believe that it does not assign a high enough priority to the cause of religious pluralism. While a few of the leaders visiting Israel said they believe that they could continue to influence the legislative process, several said the best they could hope for are stalling tactics by sympathizers in high places. That includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his pledge to his fervently Orthodox coalition partners to pass the conversion legislation. The U.S. Orthodox establishment has made it clear that it supports the legislation, which has not yet been introduced in the Knesset. Nonetheless, some Orthodox representatives joined last week”s select U.S. delegations from the fund-raising establishment and the religious movements whose mission was to explain to Israeli officialdom that Jewish unity hangs in the balance. Regardless of whether the legislation passes, it has fanned the flames ignited here by the long-standing Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs. In recent days, the moderate and highly respected chancellor of the Conservative movement”s Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, has termed the legislation a “calamity for Israel”” and a “calamity for Israel-Diaspora relations.”” In light of such threats from Israel, he has proposed the most dramatic challenge to date to the Jewish community”s central fund-raising establishment. He suggested that it take $100 million to $150 million “off the top”” of the annual national campaign to “level the playing field”” and fund Conservative and Reform institutions and other Jewish outreach programs in Israel. His call has outraged some of the custodians of that campaign, who now funnel roughly $230 million to humanitarian causes in Israel and have long advocated for more from local federations. Richard Wexler, national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, termed Schorsch”s proposal “reprehensible.”” Wexler supports an increase in the current funding by the Jewish Agency for Israel for each of the religious streams in Israel, now about $1 million each a year. But he said the chancellor was “insensitive to the needs of our people by suggesting that Jewish lives be ignored at this critical time to build up the coffers of the movements.”” Countered Schorsch, “There is no self-interest or parochial concern here.”” He said the UJA system, which has brought hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants to Israel, has an obligation to address the fact that more than 100,000 are not considered Jewish under Israeli Orthodox law.
He said Reform and Conservative Judaism could help. Otherwise, he said, “they will be battered by the religious establishment for the rest of their lives.”” By all accounts, the delegates from the United States sounded a gentle but persistent alarm as they shuttled in and out of ministers” offices and Knesset committees in Jerusalem, even as their primary official business was at the Dead Sea for the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency. Their message was muted because of Orthodox insistence that any discussion in which they participated not focus on legislation, but on the need to preserve Jewish unity. But the message resonated nonetheless that this or any other legislation that delegitimizes Reform and Conservative Judaism could jeopardize the majority of U.S. Jewry”s connection to and identification with Israel. The nexus at nearly all of the meetings was Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads a new ministerial committee on Diaspora affairs. In an interview, he said he is committed to have his committee serve as a meaningful “address”” for Israel-Diaspora concerns, beyond the immediate legislation, rather than have the two sides “debate in The New York Times.”” But the challenges of his job were amply illustrated during a meeting he had called last week of his committee of ministers and some hand- picked U.S. leaders to begin a “process of dialogue.”” While Netanyahu made an appearance at the meeting, Interior Minister Eli Suissa abruptly walked out, muttering threats of a government collapse. Suissa of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party later said official contact with Reform Jews should be kept to a minimum. For his part, Sharansky talked about the “Israeli political reality”” and pledged only to try to keep whatever conversion legislation that might pass as narrow as possible. “Keeping the status quo is the smallest of evils,”” he said, referring to the prospect of a further erosion of the status of non-Orthodox Judaism. The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, has tried to position itself as a key player on behalf of a diverse world Jewry in the struggle for religious pluralism. It recently formed the Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People. Agency Chairman Avraham Burg talks passionately about his commitment to the principle. But institutional self-interest clearly is at play. As the primary Israeli recipient of funds raised by the annual campaign of the UJA and federations across the country, the vast majority of its donors are Conservative and Reform. “It”s about time for the Jewish Agency to position itself at this junction,”” Burg told the Board of Governors last week. If it is not a central advocate, “we will be irrelevant to what troubles our constituencies.”” The Jewish Agency “is the only international body at which we have all Jewish people working together,”” he said, referring to representatives of the three main religious streams. But the agency”s broad representation itself serves as a constraint, which surfaced in a discussion on the matter by the Board of Governors. Several Orthodox members got up and said they would not countenance Burg turning the unity committee into a politicized campaign. And they took issue with Burg”s stance on the legislation. “I don”t want you to leave with the impression that the Orthodox community in the United States agrees”” with the Jewish Agency position, said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union. “We believe the law should be adopted and quickly,”” he said. “We are united as never before.”” Burg, who is Orthodox, shot back that there had been unanimous support at June”s Jewish Agency Assembly for a resolution in support of Jewish unity and for the formation of the committee. “This is what I”m committed to,”” he said. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement”s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, registered his support for the central fund-raising enterprise at platforms throughout his visit in Israel. But at the board meetings, he sounded a warning. “If you care about the viability of the campaign, I think [you] have to be concerned,”” he said. He called on local federations to follow the lead of the Council of Jewish Federations and adopt resolutions calling on the Israeli government to refrain from enacting divisive religious legislation. Despite the futility felt by some in preventing passage of the conversion legislation, many of the U.S. delegates felt their meetings with the Israelis helped to narrow the gaps in understanding. “The Israeli politicians don”t have a clue going in as to the impact of their actions on the Diaspora,”” said Dr. Conrad Giles, president of the Council of Jewish Federations. As a result, he said, “I don”t think there”s any question that something good”” is accomplished by “the continuing barrage”” of groups showing their concern.

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